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Moira Dann

Where were the Mothers of Confederation? Add to ...

It was a clear, sharp, sunny late summer morning, 145 years ago today, when Globe founding editor George Brown boarded the steamer Queen Victoria in Quebec to travel to Charlottetown. He travelled with a number of other big names in Canadian history, including John A. Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier, Alexander Tilloch Galt and D'Arcy McGee.

They were steaming to the capital of the colony of Prince Edward Island to attend (some would say crash) a conference originally arranged to discuss Maritime Union. The leaders from Canada East and West were there to present another option: a federal union of a larger number of British North American colonies. It was the conference that saw Charlottetown dubbed "the cradle of Confederation."

En route, the men ate and drank (there were thousands of bottles of champagne aboard); shaded under an awning on deck they played cards, chess and backgammon. They were greeted with "all sorts of rejoicings" from townspeople when they stepped ashore in Gaspé, and were lavishly entertained at the home of an area politician. The steamer soon resumed its journey to PEI, arriving in Charlottetown on Sept. 1, 1864; many aboard were visiting the Maritime colonies for the first time.

I followed more than 100 years later, making my way to Gaspé by car and to PEI by ferry from New Brunswick: I, too, was visiting Charlottetown for the first time. After the tourist touchstones of Anne of Green Gables and a lobster supper, I took myself to Province House to mortar the chinks in my knowledge of Confederation-era history, to search beyond the iconic black-and-white photo of those men in dark suits and top hats with the morning sun in their eyes. (Why was John A. Macdonald sitting on that low step?)

In the cool quiet of the classical architecture, it was easy to imagine the long-ago murmur of nation-building negotiations coming from behind the closed doors of the legislative chamber. And then I saw something that infused the posed photo of history with the sweaty perfume of life: It was a brightly rendered painting by Dusan Kadlec, Province House Ball - 1864 .

I was gobsmacked.

The stolid men we call the Fathers of Confederation are depicted in that same legislative chamber dancing and talking (and could they be ... flirting?) with women in the late summer heat of long ago. Women. Beautiful, ringlet haired, bustled, hoop-skirted women.

Why hadn't I known about this distaff dimension? Were these the Mothers of Confederation? It definitely cast those events of 1864 in a different light, as it made it possible to imagine myself there. The indirect experience of events by those women (indirect because of societal givens about gender at the time) was similar to my indirect experience (indirect because the events are now several generations removed).

There's no official record of the Charlottetown Conference: If it weren't for George Brown's love for his young wife, Anne Nelson, and the voluminous correspondence his yearning inspired, we would have few chronicles of either the meetings or the parties in Charlottetown (or in October in Quebec).

It was at the champagne-buoyed social events that personalities (political and otherwise) revealed themselves - and Canada was discussed (some would say gossiped) into existence over dinner.

"My dearest Anne," Brown wrote almost daily, telling her of conference progress, dinner menus and new people he met, such as the daughters of PEI opposition leader George Coles: "Well educated, well informed, and sharp as needles."

It's clear the Brown/Nelson union was passionate when you read Brown's October 1864 letter to his wife on the second anniversary of their engagement: "I was very much in love - quiet, happy, sensible love - but, oh, dear Anne how infinitely inferior it was to all the confiding, engrossing love of today. …"

This is the kind of juicy detail that can make history three-dimensional and relevant today, as people's interest in daily details (What did you have for lunch?) and life's essentials (love, marriage, birth, illness, death) has changed little.

Many people perk up when they hear what a romantic mush-bucket George Brown was.

Or when they learn another Father of Confederation (George-Étienne Cartier) was practically living with his mistress.

Or that the sister of Hewitt Bernard, one of the conference secretaries, would later become John A. Macdonald's second wife, Agnes.

Or that one of the Coles daughters, Mercy Anne, later wrote in her diary of being near death's door in a Quebec hotel room in October (most likely with diphtheria).

Or that one of the young musicians performing at the Charlottetown ball was Robert Harris, who would create, in 1884, an iconic image: Conference at Québec in 1864 .

Or that Helen Pope, wife of provincial secretary William H. Pope, would leave PEI for the first time in her life when she accompanied her husband to the Quebec Conference.

Or that their young son, Joseph, who sat on George Brown's knee and accepted his gift of a sixpence, would grow up to be Sir Joseph Pope, John A. Macdonald's secretary.

Or that Frances Monck, the sister-in-law of the governor-general, dished in her diary about how people danced and what the delegates' wives wore at the Quebec Conference: "The dresses at the Drawing Room were much improved; some wore feathers."

Parks Canada gets it right in their evocations of the past at places such as Sir George-Etienne Cartier House in Montreal. In the soundscape visitors hear in Madame Cartier's bedroom, the conspiratorial whisper of a chambermaid is irresistible as she tells how M. Cartier sleeps most nights at the (still standing) Rasco Hotel, situated near both the large house where Cartier's wife and daughters lived, and the home of his mistress, Luce Cuvillier.

The 150th anniversary of Canada's conception in Charlottetown is five short years away. To find a new way to engage with the story of Canada's beginnings, we need to turn the kaleidoscope we use to envision history. Let's not just consider Canada's birth solely through the 72 resolutions discussed and agreed to by the Fathers of Confederation, let's also consider the weather in 1864, the prices in the shops, the births and deaths, the kitchen garden vegetable crops, the fashions, the lateness of the Cunard mail ships - the social minutiae more likely discussed by the Mothers (and others) of Confederation.

Examining events from both public and private points of view conjures a more vibrant, 3-D composite image of our past.

Based in Victoria, Moira Dann has written a book and a film about her search for the Mothers of Confederation.

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